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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4470

Mr KERR (Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs) (4:04 PM) —The member for Goldstein has proposed a matter of public importance, and the terms in which that matter of public importance was proposed were:

The failure of the Government to manage, protect and grow Australia’s foreign relationships in the Asia/Pacific region in a balanced manner.

He did not mention the Pacific at all. When my counterpart as the first speaker in this debate drew attention to this the response by way of interjection was, ‘We’ll leave it to further speakers.’ Well, I waited, and the member for Mallee spoke and he has not mentioned the Pacific at all.

Mr Robb —Be patient.

Mr KERR —Be patient? It is plain that the leading speakers who are speaking about this government’s approach to the Pacific, to our region, are following what they did in government: ignoring it as an important subject of our foreign policy in this debate just as they did in government for 11 years. They ignored our nearest neighbourhood for 11 years and they are still ignoring it.

The member for Fraser was kind enough, on behalf of the government, to acknowledge that we are not making the case that in the period of the Howard government, and the period in which the foreign minister was Alexander Downer, everything was wrong. But what we do say is that their claim that everything was right is hysterically overblown and their attack on this government—a government that has made the best ever start in terms of restoring credibility to our relationship with our own region—is entirely a fig leaf to disguise the failures that they left behind.

Let us identify those failures. Firstly, they claimed that they held the greatest regard in the international community of any previous Australian government, and yet when they contested a seat on the Security Council, that bid ended in abject humiliation. We take no pleasure from that. We seek that seat ourselves so that Australia can have the status that it ought to have in the international community, but the fact is their bid ended in abject humiliation. Secondly, they put us on the wrong side of the greatest issue of our time: climate change. They refused to sign the Kyoto protocol. They did not adapt to the changing science and they left us in a position where our international credit was reduced because of that. Thirdly, they led us into participation in Iraq on flawed intelligence—the greatest foreign policy blunder of our time—and they followed it up with the mismanagement of the AWB, which traduced our trading relationships that they say are so important to them. Fourthly, they failed to listen to the warnings that were coming out of the Solomon Islands when requests were being made of them for assistance in our own neighbourhood. They did not make small interventions with assistance when required so that when the country collapsed in internal chaos, they had to inject, at a very high cost, military forces and extensive policing that is still ongoing. It needed the cooperation of the whole region to deal with something that could have been dealt with in a much more cost-effective way with an early response to the warnings. I myself took up the issue by writing directly to the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, which the then Minister for Foreign Affairs ignored. And finally, we have a situation where the previous government ignored not only climate change, but they also failed to respond to the growing need to deal with hunger and poverty in our world by not addressing the Millennium Development Goals in a serious way. They kept our overseas direct assistance program at a tragically low level—0.32 per cent of GDI at the moment. The previous government ignored those issues, but we have committed to increasing it to 0.5 per cent to play our part in making poverty history.

This debate is a hysterically overblown smokescreen ignoring those gaping wounds in the credibility of the former government. And they are attacking us for what? For our key error, articulated as putting a visit to China before a visit to Japan. One country had to be visited first, and I am certain, had the visit been the other way around, we would be hearing quite a different story. But we have had a whole series of meetings with key ministers, with Japan. Our Prime Minister is on the verge of a visit to Japan. What an absurdity to come in here with this timing, this courage, for this debate on foreign affairs. The shadow minister has sat silently, almost mute, in all of these great events that have swirled, and now that the foreign minister is away—speaking and making Australia’s representations to conferences about global hunger as food prices go up—and our trade minister has been representing Australia at the World Trade Organisation and is now in the United States discussing trade initiatives with that country, we hear the roar of the mouse. He has the courage to come forward now to say that there is a strategic flaw in what we have been doing in the balance of our relationships in foreign affairs. This government has made the best start ever in rebalancing our relationships with our region and with the global community.

I will now come to my area of specific responsibility. We came to office determined to articulate an alternative approach to Australia’s strategic relationship within our own neighbourhood. It is a neighbourhood that has not been mentioned. It is the one area in our global environment where we are, in effect, the superpower. We can influence events in many other areas, but within our own strategic area we must draw back from the bullying approach that characterised the previous government and use our influence wisely and with restraint. But we do have great influence in our region. And where we have our greatest influence, we hear the greatest silence from the opposition. No effective discussion of what they say is the key rebalancing; it is a rebalancing which we have led. Since the election, the Rudd government has undertaken an intense program of high-level personal contact with our regional neighbours. The Prime Minister’s first overseas trip was to Indonesia, to Bali, for climate change discussions. He met the Indonesian President and he met the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. Then he went on to East Timor and then to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The foreign minister, Stephen Smith, and other ministers—my parliamentary colleague, Bob McMullan—have visited our Pacific neighbours. We have visited Kiribas, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu; more visits are anticipated in coming months. We had a very significant meeting in Medang, the most important ministerial visit for years between Papua New Guinea and Australia—one which had been repeatedly put off by the former government. This meeting has rebuilt a relationship that the Labor Party set out in its fundamentals of how we would approach the Pacific in the Port Moresby Declaration. That strategic shift in our focus to recognise the importance of our own region is something that should be recognised by the Australian community.

Next week I am attending the ministerial arrangements that are held between Australia and New Zealand. We are sending across the Deputy Prime Minister with the strongest ever delegation to New Zealand, as it was the strongest ever delegation to Papua New Guinea. My appointment as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs demonstrates that our region is the continuing priority for the Rudd government. It was something that the former government simply allowed to slip right off the radar. It permitted bad relationships, bad blood to form—manifested most obviously in the disaster of the Solomon Islands, which evolved under the nose of the former foreign minister despite it being brought to his attention in direct correspondence—and it manifested in the poor relationships that were allowed to evolve between Australia and Papua New Guinea. But we are turning those things around. We have already commenced negotiations with Papua New Guinea and Samoa on new partnership arrangements, and we will soon be commencing discussions with a number of other countries interested in developing Pacific partnership developments with Australia. And the response from our Pacific neighbours to the new Australian government has been overwhelmingly positive. The change in tone has been noticed, and appreciated. Whatever were the motivations of the former government, there is no doubt that under its stewardship—(Time expired)